Issue 11-43 October 26, 2017

Steve Cropper cover image

Cover photo © 2017 Bob Kieser


 In This Issue 

Don Wilcock has our feature interview with Steve Cropper. We have 8 Blues reviews for you this week including new music from The Forrest McDonald Band, Riff Diamond, Paul DeLay Band, Joakim Tinderholt, Halley DeVestern Band, Paul Demon, Mama SpanX and The Billy Jones Band.

We have the latest in Blues society news. All this and MORE! SCROLL DOWN!!!


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 Featured Blues Review – 1 of 8 


forrest mcdonald cd imageThe Forrest McDonald Band – Stand My Ground

World Talent Records

13 songs – 54 minutes

www.forrestmcdonald.com

Forrest McDonald delivers another outstanding collection of modern blues with a Southern soul feel with Stand My Ground. But that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following the career of the skillful guitarist/songwriter. Aided by smoky-sweet vocalist Becky Wright, he delivers more of the good-time music that’s kept him busy for the past five decades.

A native of Austin, Texas, but a member of the Boston Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, McDonald grew up in southeastern New England immersed at home in music. His love for the blues began at age seven at the Newport Folk Festival when he experienced Josh White on stage in the early ’60s. Later, he hitchhiked to New York, where he got to meet Muddy Waters, and he was a member of two popular regional bands before joining Boston Rock Symphony, an 11-piece ensemble that fronted Arthur Fielder and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, later in the decade.

Around the same time Forrest joined Wadsworth Mansion, a group that toured with Edgar Winter and also appeared on American Bandstand, thanks to their Top 20 hit, “Mary’s Coming Home.” But major fame came after he moved to the West Coast, where he played behind Bonnie Bramlett and Kathi McDonald and where he was a first-call studio musician.

A man who’s relocated frequently, McDonald was in Alabama to visit his father when his dad suggested they stop by the nearby Muscle Shoals Sound Studio “to see what was going on.” Friendship with studio personnel quickly resulted when he dazzled them with his playing after they asked if he’d brought along his axe. That brief encounter led to Forrest laying down the guitar part for Bob Seger’s monster hit, “Old Time Rock & Roll,” a few weeks later and Bobby Womack, and it also led to a stint in the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

McDonald launched his own World Talent Records in 1991 and has been pursuing a solo career ever since with 13 CDs and frequent studio work to his credit. Now based in Virginia, he rips and runs throughout Stand My Ground, but doesn’t hesitate to fall into the background in support of Wright, who supplies all of the vocals on this one, which features 11 originals and two covers.

They’re backed by a veteran ensemble that includes Pix Ensign on harmonica, Lee Gammon on bass and John Hanes on drums. They’re augmented by drummers Jon McKnight and Rob Robertie, guitarists Barry Richman and Valery Lunichkin, harp player Little Ronnie Owens and Jon Liebman, organist Rich Ianucci, and sax players Jeff Shellof and Chuck Williams.

Simple solitary strumming opens “Guitar String Blues,” which quickly erupts in a syncopated walk as Becky describes the feelings she has after her man’s left — and taken everything with him, including the strings off her guitar. Forrest’s brief mid-tune solo and tasty responses to her vocals throughout put his talents on display. “Chicken Scratch Boogie,” an uptempo pleaser, describes the singer’s love-making talents before a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ classic, “I Put A Spell On You,” delivered as a burning ballad.

A military drumbeat and accompanying harp line introduces the title tune “Stand My Ground,” which deals with having to leave town to get away from a man who puts the singer down, while “Turnaround Blues” describes the pain a woman feels after learning her guy loves her no more. McDonald shines on “Certified Blue,” a slow-tempo number that continues the message forward. This time, the lady feels she’s being used. Apparently, all the abuse above leaves the lady feeling that “I Am A Stone,” the next tune. But she recovers well as stated in “The Feeling Is Gone,” which follows.

An uptempo cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Piney Brown” is up next, driven by Liebman’s harp intro, before another ballad, “River Of Tears” — the only thing the singer has left after crying over the man who broke her heart. The rapid-fire “Take It To The Top” sings praise of someone who’s proven himself to be more than a one-night stand. The good feelings continue as the couple plan a night of dancing in “Till The Morning Light” before “Riding On The Blues Train” pulls into the station and brings the CD to a close.

Stand My Ground is a rock-solid, well-paced group effort. McDonald’s an immensely talented string bender who’s comfortable enough in his talent to give plenty of space to his singer and fellow musicians throughout, and his songwriting talents put new spins on familiar themes throughout. And Wright is just as talented on vocals. Available through CDBaby and direct from the artist’s website (address above), it’ll be a welcome addition to anyone who wants their blues modern with an old-school feel.

Reviewer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. His first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.


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 Featured Blues Review – 2 of 8 

riff diamond cd imageRiff Diamond – Sapphire

Riff Trolls Management

www.riffdiamond.com

11 tracks

Hailing from Northern Ireland, Riff Diamond is a rocking, young blues band with a big sound. Becky Baxter (Vocals) and Conal “Tone Monster” O’Donoghue (Guitar) met up online in a Join My Band forum and began playing in 2014. They were 16 and 14 respectively. Drummer John McNulty heard of the sessions via a friend and joined in the fun, and then they “found” bassist Shauna McGarrity later in the year who was an immediate fit for them. They enjoyed doing covers and began writing some songs and were picked up to open for some larger acts, so they decided to officially become a band. The band was involved in writing 9 of the 11 tracks and cover “Whole Lotta Love” and “Hey Joe.” The songs are Janis Joplin-esque heavy rock songs with blues influences with a power trio backing a singer.

“Shadow Man” is a driving rocker with huge vocals by Baxter. “Masquerade” is a mid-tempo rocker, like a slower Gracie Slick/Jefferson Airplane sort of cut. “Diamond Heart” is a down tempo rock anthem that builds from lower keyed guitar solos to high powered vocals. “29 Days” is a rock ballad of sorts with Baxter holding back and thoughtful fills by the band. “Kick in the Teeth” picks it up and is more of an in your face rock style with a moderate groove and big vocals that builds as it progresses. Next is “Phoenix,” more up tempo and with a big guitar attack.

The first cover is the Willie Dixon/Led Zeppelin song. The instrumental parts begin as straight up Led Zep with some effects and the vocals lack the distortion and just feature Becky’s powerful voice with some echo on the choruses. The solos they go off in a semi-psychedelic style. Conal’s brother Dan appears on harp, too. “Count Me Out” is a restrained rocker followed by the band letting loose on “I Promise You.” The final original cut is “Love Hate.” It’s got somewhat of a tribal beat and original approach to the melodic lines. There is lots of guitar here, too. “Hey Joe” closes the set; the guitar intro is familiar territory. The harp returns for some interesting effects behind the vocals, playing an alternate melody. The guitar solo is almost funky and the harp plays behind that, too, as it does throughout.

These kids/young adults are a great little rock band with roots in the late 1960’s sound. They, like many bands today, try to classify themselves as a blues or blues rock band, but what is presented here is essentially all rock. It’s well done, but it’s not really blues. I enjoyed the album as it was. The vocals are solid and stratospheric, the guitar is excellent and the backline is tight. The original songs hearken back to my era as a teen and are interesting and well crafted. Not a bad rock band, but don’t expect too much (if any) blues if you pick this one up.

Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.


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 Featured Blues Review – 3 of 8 

paul delay band cd imagePaul DeLay Band – Live At Notodden ‘07

Little Village Foundation – 2017

http://pauldelay.com

13 tracks; 52 minutes

Paul DeLay passed away in 2007 so it is strangely appropriate that this CD, recorded ten years before his death, should see the light of day ten years after his passing. Paul’s band had traveled to Norway in 1997, given a great performance and were flattered to find that they had been recorded and one of their tunes had appeared alongside BB King, Luther Allison and Robert Cray on a commemorative disc of the festival. It was years later that two members of the band thought to inquire whether tapes still existed of the whole performance and the Norwegians responded in the affirmative. So, after all these years we have a new Paul DeLay recording to enjoy.

Paul came from the Pacific Northwest and his high quality band of the time was based in Portland, Oregon. Alongside Paul’s harmonica and vocals we have Louis Pain on B3, Peter Damman on guitar, Dan Fincher on guitar, Mike Klobas on drums and John Mazzocco on bass. Paul wrote all the material here bar one Muddy Waters cover, the members of the band chipping in on a few tunes.

After a short introduction we are straight into the short “Come On With It” which acts as a warm-up for the band. Initial sound quality problems improve on “Wealthy Man” in which Paul declares that he may not be rich but he is doing fine with his girl’s affections while Peter lays down a fine solo. Dan Fincher’s sax is a great asset on all the material here, adding depth to the arrangements and joining Paul in creating what sounds at times like a horn section and his work is impressive on “Nice and Strong” which also features John’s bass to strong effect.

Above all what comes out strongly here is Paul’s personality, not only in his exuberant playing but also in his obvious delight at the reception he is getting and his humorous asides. In a section entitled “Paul Speaks” he introduces the band and then apologizes for his appearance, caused by British Airways’ loss of his luggage (very embarrassing for a Brit reviewer!). The sole cover follows, an extended reading of the slow Muddy Waters blues “Come Home Baby” which features Paul’s mellow harp work. “Rainy Marie” adds some Cajun rhythms and “I Can’t Quit You No” keeps the band rocking. The pace drops for “What Went Wrong”, a soulful ballad about a deteriorating relationship which Paul sings well with Peter and Dan playing well in unison but things get rocking again on the bouncing shuffle “Say What You Mean”.

Paul introduces “I Know What You Mean” in humorous fashion and it provides an interesting tune with John’s bubbling bass and Louis’ organ stabs providing great support for Peter to cut loose on his solo. The song also gives Paul plenty of opportunity to have fun with his vocals, as can be heard by his chuckles at the end. The touching “I’m Gonna Miss Talking To You” is an emotional ballad with lovely playing from the whole band, a song that was clearly written with a broken romance in mind but now takes on a different dimension when you think of Paul’s untimely passing. “Love On A Roll” is a barn-storming finale that has solos for everybody though Paul sounds like he is suffering vocally at the end of the show.

The many fans of Paul DeLay’s playing will be delighted that these tapes were recovered to make a fine memorial to his playing and personality.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK who enjoys a wide variety of blues and roots music, especially anything in the ‘soul/blues’ category. Favorites include contemporary artists such as Curtis Salgado, Tad Robinson, Albert Castiglia and Doug Deming and classic artists including Bobby Bland, Howling Wolf and the three ‘Kings’. He gets over to the States as often as he can to see live blues.


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 Featured Blues Review – 4 of 8 

joakin tindergholt cd imageJoakim Tinderholt – Hold On

www.joakimtinderholt.com

Big H Records ( Norway)

Rhythm Bomb Records (International)

10 songs time-30:04

Joakim Tinderholt from Oslo, Norway has a very firm grip on American music. If I didn’t tell you, you would swear he’s from the states. His well crafted music takes from blues, R&B, rockabilly, pop, early rock and roll and country. There is no trace of an accent. Joakim’s strong and confident voice and sure fire skills on guitar make this CD a gem. His guitar playing leans heavily towards rockabilly and early rock and roll styles. The musicians he brings along for the ride are top notch. Two were members of The Billy T Band, a band that I reviewed for Blues Blast – William “Bill” Troiani on bass and back up vocals and Hakon Hoye on second guitar and back up vocals. Both are true music icons in Norway. The other additional players add much to the sound. The song selection consists of four band penned and six covers.

Blues meets R&B on the Ike Turner song “Trouble Up The Road”. Joakim’s sturdy vocal and confident guitar playing take charge of the tune. The guitar playing here owes more to rockabilly music. The Joakim original “Anything Is Better Than Nothing” is a perfect example of west coast jump blues with both guitarists remaining true to the style. Sax man Kasper Skulleryd Vaernes adds to the vibe. Bo Diddley song and lyric references permeate the tribute to Bo “Jungle Bo”. The band has the Bo Diddley beat down to a “t”.

“Farmer John”, a song I know from The Searchers version, owes a lot to The Coasters sound. The song was written and performed by Don And Dewey, but received more fame with the version by The Premiers in the fifties. Joakim nails it here. Fifties style classic R&B is invoked on the sprightly and bouncy “What About Love”. Joakim breaks out rockabilly-meets-country guitar, while Kjell Magne Lauritzen unleashes some “tinkly” piano on “Hold On To Me”.

“Sweet Baby Of Mine” finds Joakim delivering energetic vocals on a divine slice of fifties rock and roll. Add “Number 9 Train” to the pantheon of classic train songs. Country-rockabilly guitar here once again. Joakim this style down with confident ease. A good version of Johnny Rivers’ hit ballad “The Poor Of Side Of Town” stands as a good interpretation, but it lacks something without Johnny’s Memphis drawl. The jumpy “I Quit” serves as an appropriate set closer as a nifty fifties style rocker.

It’s all here. Great singing, song writing, guitar and great instrumental backing. The bands love of this type of music shows in the care and talent displayed in this release. The only minor quibble is the short length of this CD at barely over thirty minutes, but much great music is presented that you hardly notice the brevity of the album. Music lovers here is a thoroughly enjoyable addition to your collection.

Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.



 Featured Blues Review – 5 of 8 

halleydeverternband cdHalley DeVestern Band – Keep On Playin’

Self-Release – 2017

5 tracks; 22 minutes

www.halleydevestern.com

The band is based in NYC and this is their third release, the previous one Fabbo! Boffo! Smasho! (also an EP) having been described as ‘balls-to-the-wall Blues Rock Funk with a splash of Swampaloo’, so blues fans have been warned that blues is only a small part of what the band play! Halley handles lead vocals with Steve Jabas and David Patterson on guitars and keys, Tom Heinig on bass and Rick Kulsar on drums; everyone contributes backing vocals. All the material is original, Halley and Tom writing four of the songs and the whole band credited on the title track.

“Keep On Playin’” sets out in Southern Rock style with some attractive slide work but the song itself seemingly runs out of inspiration with endless repetition of the title towards the end. “Time For You To Light Things” has a funk base with plenty of harmony vocals and an element of rap while the gentlest tune here, “Bangin’” takes us into a sort of AOR sound (think Heart). “Song In You” sounds very 80’s pop with lots of synth work and pure rock guitar solos; “Hit Twice” starts promisingly with some swampy slide but Halley’s histrionic vocals are really over the top.

Halley did sing with Big Brother & The Holding Company for a spell and the disc demonstrates that she has the sort of big voice and personality that audiences often like but there is little or no real blues content here.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK who enjoys a wide variety of blues and roots music, especially anything in the ‘soul/blues’ category. Favorites include contemporary artists such as Curtis Salgado, Tad Robinson, Albert Castiglia and Doug Deming and classic artists including Bobby Bland, Howling Wolf and the three ‘Kings’. He gets over to the States as often as he can to see live blues.



 Featured Blues Review – 6 of 8 

paul demon cd imagePaul Demon – Busy Crossroads

www.pauldemon.com

self release

13 songs time-57:53

Italian harmonica player-singer Paolo Demontis appears on his new CD as Paul Demon, a more bluesy sounding moniker. I reviewed his unique approach to the blues on his previous release “Loopin’ The Blues” which was released under his given name. He carries on his one man band of vocals, harmonica, percussion and loop station here as well. His way with a harmonica is very well informed and inventive while keeping it bluesy. The loop station and only having a pretty steady beat throughout most songs it limits his style considerably. He manages to vary his harp style enough to keep the music as fresh as possible. His accent makes deciphering some of the lyrics a challenge to say the least.

Many of his songs fall into the incessant beat category, such as “Wake Up” and “Loopin’ The Blues”. “I Hear Woohoo” is an instrumental with mouthed sounds, much like a modern day Sonny Terry. Paul adopts a jazzy virtuosic sound on parts of “Fine Girl” and “I Wanna Be The Devil”, similar to what Charlie Musselwhite does occasionally.

He reverts to harmonica imitations on “Lucky Chicken” and “Loop Train Blues”, utilizing one harmonica for the underlying beat while he plays over the top on it. Your guess is as good as mine as to what “Starfish” is about. What sounds like clicking noises made from his mouth are utilized along with a boogie beat on “Koko Boogie”, where he pulls out his “boogie” voice. On “Alright Babe” and “Rocking” he uses an echo on his harmonica to great effect.

Paul’s harmonica skills can’t be denied, but after two CDs of much the same, it may well be time to add a few musicians into the mix. The absence of guitars is refreshing, but using a real drummer would give more flexibility to the rhythms. Taken in small doses his music is rewarding, but the similar approach throughout tends to get monotonous. His ideas and execution are intriguing, but perhaps it is time for him to flesh out his sound, while still maintaining his creativity and originality. Opened minded people would be advised to keep track of his further endeavors.

Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.


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 Featured Blues Review – 7 of 8 


momma spanx cd imageMama
SpanX – State of Groove

Self-release

www.mamaspanx.com

12 songs – 56 minutes

Mama SpanX are a funk/soul/rock/pop band led by singer, songwriter and New York Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Nikki Armstrong. Having originally kicked around the idea of the band with the late soul-jazz guitarist Melvin Sparks (who coined the band name), Armstrong finally began pulling the band together in 2015.

The opening track, “Rocket”, perfectly sets out Mama SpanX’s stall. With a rock solid groove, funky horns, Armstrong’s top drawer blues voice, great dueling saxophone solos from Julie Sax and Steve Sadd and a rock guitar solo from Steve Johnson, the song shifts through various key changes before suddenly launching into the stratosphere as it explodes into a James Brown-style gospel breakdown.

It is immediately apparent that Mama SpanX have chops to spare but also retain the precious ability to craft clever songs. Armstrong herself wrote or co-wrote 11 of the songs on State of Groove, the sole cover being an updated version of Lou Donaldson’s 1967 hit, “Alligator Boogie” (to which Armstrong added additional lyrics). She has a particular knack for coming up with catchy choruses, such as in “Thinkin’, where one finds oneself excited for the verse to end, knowing what is about to happen.

Armstrong has a magnificent voice, warm and powerful, with an endearing lived-in edge to it, and she is superbly supported by her band. In addition to Armstrong, Mama SpanX features Steve Johnson on guitars, Harlan Spector on organ and piano, Julie Sax on alto and bari-saxophone, flute and backing vocals, Steve Sadd on tenor and soprano sax, David Abercrombie on bass, “Uncle ” Ben Beckley on drums (and piano on “Anywhere You Are”). There are also guest appearances by Russ Mullen (trumpet and trombone), John “Beedo” Dzubak, Sr (vocals on “Let’s Roll”), Stewart Cole (trumpet solo on “Anywhere You Are”) and Rob Chaseman (percussion programming on “Black & White”).

There is more than a hint of the 1970s in songs like “Black And White” and “All Around The World”, partly in the chord structures, partly in the lavish production and smart backing vocals, but primarily in the easy virtuosity of the musicians. In an era when the pernicious devaluation of music as a valuable art form shows no sign of abating, it is both refreshing and encouraging to hear an album like this. The musicians successfully run that delicate balance between being a musical wizard whilst never over-shadowing the song and the music. The album title is spot on – groove is absolutely key to every song on State of Groove – but so are melody, technical excellence and passion.

There is also a fine sense of humor on display, as evidenced by the sound of an old-fashioned needle being placed on a record that book-ends the album. This is proudly retro-modern music.

Despite Armstrong’s impressive blues resume, there isn’t a huge amount of blues on State of Groove. There is however a lot to enjoy on this album. If you revel in the soul-funk-pop of the likes of Tower of Power, James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone, you will find much to appreciate here.

Reviewer Rhys Williams lives in Cambridge, England, where he plays blues guitar when not holding down a day job as a technology lawyer or running around after his children. He is married to an American, and speaks the language fluently, if with an accent.


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 Featured Blues Review – 8 of 8 

billy jones band cd imageThe Billy Jones Band – Funky Blues And Southern Soul Vol. 1

Self-Release – 2017

10 tracks; 45 minutes

www.reverbnation.com/billyjonesbluez

Based out of Jacksonville, Arkansas, the band is a four-piece with Billy on lead vocals and guitar, Corey Bray on keys, Rev. ‘Do Dirty’ Kendrick on bass and Mark Flinoil on drums. Billy wrote six of the songs here with covers of two soul tunes, one country piece and a little known jazz tune, of which more anon. The general style here does match the title with blues and soul both present and correct.

Billy has a convincing soul and blues voice and plays some solid guitar though he is prone to ‘over-excitement’, leading to some grungy, discordant guitar on occasion. Two contrasting songs open the album: “My Love Is Real” is a mid-tempo soul tune with synth horns from keyboardist Corey and nice slide from Bily who doubles up on guitar for the solo section; “Someone New” is a classic soul ballad with gentle chords and rippling piano underpinning some aching lead work from Billy before he delivers a set of lyrics about a love that has gone cold – a good song. The first cover comes from an unusual source – Duke Ellington with lyrics by Don George (who more famously wrote “I’m Beginning To See The Light”) – but Billy re-works “Biggest House In Town” into a straight blues tune with some fine piano and organ work from Corey as Billy plays his cleanest guitar on the most conventional blues cut of the album. “Can’t Let You Go” was a 1974 Homer Banks tune written for Stax act The Soul Children; here it gets a deep soul treatment with string effects and some of Billy’s most torrid guitar. Billy doesn’t seem to have a lot of luck in his love life as “Love Nobody Else” follows on a similar theme, Billy’s guitar having some Santana references to these ears.

A second song from an unusual source is “Chiseled In Stone”, originally a 1988 country hit for Vern Gosdin. Billy keeps a country ballad rhythm and adds some pleasant guitar touches over Corey’s piano on a song with strong lyrics that Billy puts across well. “I’m Yo Freak” adds some of the funk mentioned in the title and has the most distorted guitar on the disc, almost painful to listen to. In sharp contrast “Ready For Some Lovin’” rips along with Corey’s rock and roll piano and some lovely rhythm playing by Billy, a real foot-tapper. Billy’s final original “Alligator Farm” is a slow blues with Louisiana-referenced lyrics which recount a torrid sexual encounter with the daughter of the farm, Billy giving us more of his distorted guitar work. The album closes on an upbeat note with a song co-written by one of Southern Soul’s great songwriters, George Jackson, “Man And A Half” which Billy and the band deliver really well.

This disc is a genuine mixed bag. In parts it is superb Southern Soul, in parts great blues but also suffers from some guitar that borders on the unpleasant, at least for this reviewer.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK who enjoys a wide variety of blues and roots music, especially anything in the ‘soul/blues’ category. Favorites include contemporary artists such as Curtis Salgado, Tad Robinson, Albert Castiglia and Doug Deming and classic artists including Bobby Bland, Howling Wolf and the three ‘Kings’. He gets over to the States as often as he can to see live blues.


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 Featured Blues Interview – Steve Cropper 

steve cropper photo 1“It’s hard to say what’s made me successful. If I knew, I’d probably give it to everybody, but I’ll tell you this. I may be old, but I’m gonna die young. I think it’s really attitude. That doesn’t mean you have to speak the language of the younger generation, but you gotta really know how to communicate with them. Because if you don’t, they’re gonna be a step ahead of you everywhere you go. Every now and again you have to step up in front of them and block their way just slightly to make ’em think for a second.”

The AllMusic Guide calls Steve Cropper “probably the best-known soul guitarist in the world.” In 1996 England’s Mojo Magazine proclaimed him number two guitarist of all-time. Jimi Hendrix was number one. Rolling Stone magazine readers voted him among the Top 100 Guitar Players of all-time in 2003.

Nearly 60 years into a career he started as a hit making teenager, guitarist Steve Cropper is best known for doing for The Blues Brothers and Memphis soul what James Burton did for Elvis Presley and rock and roll in general. Cropper codified a sound that music fans the world over hear in their minds when they think of Memphis soul.

While Motown smoother out black rhythm ‘n blues, turning out chocolate milk for the masses and putting Detroit on the map as an urban center for original sweet soul music, the Stax-Volt sound retained the edge of America’s black musical roots. Steve Cropper appears on every record Stax put out from 1961 to 1970, and he wrote or co-wrote most of them. If Sun Records’ Elvis put Memphis on the pop music map in the ’50s, it was Stax-Volt that reinstated Memphis’ stature as the home of music that made America shake to its core.

His guitar was and is the special sauce slathered on a full rack of ribs that tweaked the Memphis sound. His strings are as funky as Muddy Waters’ Delta blues and as rich as America’s jazz heritage. And it was Cropper who was the center piece that re-activated American music fans’ slightly dangerous sweet spot following the rise and subsequent whitewash of rock and roll. If Motown was choreographed dancing, pastel jump suits, and smooth vocal harmonies, Stax-Volt was dark glasses, strident screams of sensual rapture and the essence of forbidden fruit that white mothers feared would infect their teenagers. Ironically, at the center point of this phenomenon was Cropper, a six-foot-six white teenager.

As Stax-Volt’s resident guitarist, songwriter, producer and performer, Steve Cropper was ubiquitous in formulating the sounds of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Albert King. He was Booker T.’s partner with the band The M.G.s in creating “Green Onions,” the funkiest, most instantly recognizable soul instrumental of all time. It went number one on the R&B charts and number three on the pop charts in 1962. Cropper at the time didn’t realize that it would become as iconic as it has, but he says today that he knew it was a hit.

Booker T. stumbled on “Green Onions” “strange” chord structure in the 11th grade. “I could play my little theory chords with Steve Cropper, (drummer) Al Jackson and (bass player) Lewie Steinberg. If I had any expertise with the chords, they had the expertise with the rhythm, and they just practiced it in the clubs. I didn’t have to think about that or worry about it. All I had to do was play my little chords, and it came together.”

Cropper shrugs at Booker T.’s giving him that much credit for the song. “I know the intro has become pretty famous. I’m just playing a four major to a one major, four-one, four-one on my intro. Booker’s in a minor and I’m in a major, and it works because the bass line supports all of it.”

Cropper was the glue that held Booker T. and The M.G.s together. The genesis of that band and the Stax label was a group called The Mar-Keys whose 1961 instrumental hit “Last Night” went top 5 on both the pop and R&B charts on Satellite Records which later changed its name to Stax. Cropper was 19 at the time. He would go on to produce records for Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Eddie Floyd in a career that includes accompanying Rod Stewart, Art Garfunkel, Stephen Bishop, Neil Sedaka, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kenny Rankin, Levon Helm, Johnny Taylor, and Elvis. While at Stax Cropper co-wrote “Greens Onions” and “Hip Hug-Her” for Booker T. and The M.G.s, Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour” and “635-5789″ plus “Dock of The Bay” and “Fa-Fa-Fa” for Otis Redding.

Cropper recalls the first time he met Otis. “Our drummer Al Jackson kept telling him, “Our A&R director holds auditions on Saturday, and he probably doesn’t have time to listen to you.’ He just kept bugging us and bugging us, and Al came to me and he said, ‘Can you take five seconds out of your time and get this guy off my back, cause he’s just bugging me to death about listening to him sing.’ I said, ‘Ok, well, tell him to come down to the piano.’ So, I went down to the piano. I said, ‘Ok, play something,’ and (Otis) said, ‘I don’t play piano. I play a little git-tar, but I don’t play piano.’ He said, ‘Can you play some of those church chords?’

steve cropper photo 2“The first time I heard Otis sing “These Arms Are Mine,” my hair stood up. I grabbed Jim’s (Jim Stewart, Stax founder) shirt and said, ‘Jim, stop whatever you’re doing. You gotta come and hear this guy sing,’ and Jim looked at me and said, ‘What? I don’t have time to go hear someone sing.’ Then, he (tried) to put the band together to record the song running out on the sidewalk and said, ‘Duck (Dunn, bass player), get your bass back out here,’ and I was putting the bass in my trunk getting ready to go home. It was the greatest voice I’d ever heard.

“On the last session, we had Otis for two weeks because he hadn’t booked the tour yet. (He) was getting ready to, and he took off after Monterey (Pop Festival). He had a throat operation I guess to have the polyps taken off, and he sang so good as attested by the record that came out, The Dock of The Bay record. He sounds so good on that record, it’s amazing. So, Ronny Capone who was the engineer said, ‘Do you realize how well Otis is singing?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So, we started at night, and after we’d go to lunch or dinner and got back to the studio and pulled out old tracks and had them overdub on ’em. All the four tracks we had in the can. So, fortunately, he left us with about 14 really good vocal performances and songs in the can rather than scrounging around trying to find old tracks or something. We had new songs, new tracks, new vocals. It was amazing that we had all that stuff.”

Otis died before “Dock of The Bay” was released in 1967. Cropper still hasn’t gotten over his passing. “That’s devastating. I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about. It was very emotional, and it still is. I don’t know what it would be like to lose a sibling, to lose a son or a daughter, but I know what it is to lose a best friend, and it is definitely not easy. It’s tough. It never goes away.”

Cropper is one of a select group of songwriter/musicians who can write songs that each are unique enough that, when taken collectively, can qualify as a whole genre of music. You can easily imagine his repertoire being the work of a much larger cadre of musicians. And yet he is largely responsible for creating – or co-creating – the entire Memphis soul lexicon. I asked him how he feels when people say he invented soul guitar?

“It sounds a little farfetched, but I’ll own up to it, I guess. I copied from a guy named Lowman Pauling with the 5 Royales. He was the songwriter leader of the group and played guitar, and I tried to style myself a little bit after him in the late ’50s and early ’60s.”

Cropper did an album called A Salute to the 5 Royales in 2011. Pauling was Cropper’s biggest technical influence. “I would say my first influence was Bo Diddley, and then we all listen to Chuck Berry and all that stuff, (but) Lowman Pauling was the guy I got to see live and I said, ‘I want to play like that guy.’

Cropper agrees with both Booker T. and another Stax artist, the late Isaac Hayes, who felt there was magic mojo in those studio recordings. “Right. A lot of that stuff was written and conceived on stage playing for small audiences, and then we got to come in the studio and put it down and heard it back which was very exciting for us. There was a lot of enthusiasm. It never got boring at Stax. It was always like a new day, a new song. There was a time I think we had about 17 hours on the Stax roster, so we were cutting at least two songs a week at least.”

In 1978, Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, the crowning stars of the perennially popular TV show “Saturday Night Live,” created an instantly popular duo called the Blues Brothers that started as a satire on blues in general. In their alter egos as Jake and Elwood Blues, they wore John Lee Hooker sun glasses with the kind of black suits and hats musicians wore on jazz album covers of the ’50s. Dan Akroyd told Crawdaddy magazine, “The glasses are crucial, man. The band has got to have the right look or the whole thing won’t work. It’s essential that we get Ray-Bans model number 5022-G15.”

John Belushi had played drums since he was eight. To him, the Blues Brothers’ music was more than shtick. He told Crawdaddy magazine in 1978: “There was a lot of rainy nights with nothing to do, and this guy I met there (in Eugene, Oregon), Curtis Selgado, began playing me all this music. It was fucking unbelievable. I was starving for it, and Curtis kept asking if I was really interested. Interested? I couldn’t stop playing the stuff! Magic Sam, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Junior Wells. I walked around playing that shit all the time. I bought hundreds of records and singles. And then I knew Danny had played the harp in Canada, and I always could sing, so we created the Blues Brothers.”

steve cropper photo 3Steve Cropper was the guitarist in the Blues Brothers Band. The press at the time didn’t quite know how to take “the brothers.” And the idea that they were backed by Steve Cropper and a crack band had them scratching their heads. Renowned New York Times music critic John Rockwell dubbed the package “an affectionate, lightweight good time.”

By 1980 they’d released a number one LP Briefcase Full of Blues, and Rockwell had attended one of their concerts at The Palladium. “It is felt that as comedians they aren’t quite funny enough and as live performers they simply don’t live up to their band let alone their soul inspirations,” said Rockwell adding, “First, the Blues Brothers are by no means that bad. Mr. Belushi has nothing to be deeply ashamed about compared to a lot of white people who try to sing black popular music. And Mr. Akroyd can play functional harmonica and snap out the patter songs (“Riot in Cellblock No. 9″) handily enough. And that band is first-rate.”

Not only were Akroyd and Belushi white comedians doing the blues, but that “first-rate” band was bi-racial. Cropper is featured in a film currently showing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame commenting on how the racial atmosphere in Memphis changed following the death of Martin Luther King in 1968. In our interview he speaks about how the band members remained color blind after that tragedy.

“I don’t think (Marin Luther King’s death) changed very much attitude in the studio itself. What changed was the attitude outside, and that was pretty devastating because I think most of the guys that worked there weren’t very comfortable outside the studio. The only difference was when you walked into Stax everything changed. You just left all your problems and all that stuff outside. You had a great day in the studio, and when you walked back out you might have to relive some of it again, but everybody was in the studio for the same reason, to make a hit record, and there was no color whatsoever.

“Of course, nowadays everyone wants to make something out of it being integrated when everything outside was segregated, and it was just the way of life we all agreed to, but there was no color inside the walls of Stax. It did not exist. Everybody was comfortable with everybody. So, that was the way it was.”

Besides Cropper on guitar, the band included Donald “Duck”  Dunn on bass, Murphy Dunne on keyboards, drummer Willie “Too Big”  Hall, Tom “Bones” Malone on trombone and tenor sax, James Cotton’s guitarist Matt “Guitar” Murphy and Alan “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin on trumpet. The Blues Brothers film cemented their image, creating the broadest market for blues in general since the British Invasion. Appearing in the first film were James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Carrie Fisher, Aretha Franklin, Henry Gibson, John Lee Hooker backed by Big Walter Horton, Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Guitar Junior (Luther Johnson) and Fuzz Jones. In the production notes for the film Belushi called it “a tribute to black American music.”

“We took a lot of the flak,” says Cropper about the critical reaction to The Blues Brothers, “and then we had to learn as we went that Belushi used to front a band. He was a drummer and a singer, and he was very good at it, and Akroyd actually did play harmonica. I mean he didn’t have somebody else play for him, and fake it in the movie or nothing. He did it, and I think that was told on stage, too, because they had to go out and perform that stuff. And a lot of press and so forth did not want to accept the fact that when Belushi or Akroyd could do anything other than just act and be on TV and movies.

“I don’t think they accepted it. They did a little more than just clown around. They were very serious about what they did, and Belushi also had one of the biggest blues collections of records that I had ever seen. I mean he had walls and walls. He had one whole room full of that stuff. Every wall had a record on it.”

Cropper says neither he nor Duck Dunn knew The Blues Brothers’ inspiration Curtis Selgado at the time, but he, Cropper, ended up playing on one of Selgado’s records. “I (never) stayed in touch. I know him and played on one of his records 30-odd years ago I think in L.A. when I lived out there. A great artist.”

steve cropper photo 4Cropper has been touring with a current version of the Blues Brothers Band for 15 years and recently released The Last Shade of Blue Before Black on Severn Records. While calling itself The Original Blues Brothers Band, the only original member is Cropper himself. Sax player Lou Marini was in the original touring band. John Belushi died in 1982, and Dan Akroyd does not appear on this record. That said, Matt Murphy and Paul “The Shiv” Shaffer make appearances and special guests include Dr. John and Joe Louis Walker. The recordings were all made live in the studio and vocal chores vary from cut to cut.

“You know, the funny thing about the album. We’d been threatening to do it for so long knowing that we needed one, and finally we said, “We’ve been together now a little over 15 years with the present members of the band.” I just thought it was necessary.

“These guys are seasoned musicians. They’re in the business, so it was easy for everybody to follow, and most of the guys in the band play all the time on the stage when they’re home and not on the road with us. We’ve been out there on the road since February of this year. So, I’m kinda glad to be home for a while.

History has repeated itself so many times in my career as a music journalist. Passionate music that reveals the inner soul captures a niche in the marketplace and then a style comes along to make that “real” music palatable to the masses. Motown created some great music, but it was polished for a mass audience, but Stax became the yin to Motown’s yang taking the listener back to the bone. I’ ve always loved Steve Cropper because he led that charge. Still, he tips his hat to Berry Gordy’ s Motown.

“Technically, Berry Gordy and them were going after the pop charts. Stax was going after the R&B charts. Yeah, we got lucky every now and then getting on the pop charts. A lot of Berry’s music because if the nature got on the R&B charts, but he was going after the pop charts.

“There was a part that Stax wanted to go after the pop charts, but they failed miserably in a lotta places. However, when people like Aretha Franklin covered a song, it went up the pop charts. She had a number one record with “Seesaw” (on Atlantic Records in 1968), a song I got to co-write with Don Covay and recorded the first version with him at Stax, but there weren’t many (number ones).

“I guess “Green Onions” hit the pop charts, and “Last Night” with the Mar-Keys, our high school band, also hit the pop charts. and we were just lucky because it didn’t have any lyrics on it. It didn’t get judged as much. That’s when instrumentals were very, very popular, and a guy I kinda grew up listening to was Bill Justice who did “Raunchy.” That was all instrumental stuff, so I was still in high school with the flip side of his third release with a silly little song I wrote that he retitled “Flea Circus.” I was 16 and I got my first royalty check from Sam Phillip’ International Records back in the late ’50s, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is what to do with the rest of my life’

More than 60 years later Cropper’s still in the game. “I think about survival every day whether I’m inside the box or outside the box. I don’t know. I’m just going through life. I put one foot in front of the other, and I always look down in case I might step off a cliff or step into something, and I tell everybody, ‘Well, I grew up on a farm, and when you walk into the barnyard, you look down. You don’t look up'”

Check out Steve’s website at: playitsteve.com

Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.


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River City Blues Society – Pekin, IL

The River City Blues Society proudly presents James Armstrong at 7:00PM on Saturday October 28 At the Capitol Street Sports Bar & Grill, 219 N. Capitol Street in Pekin, Ill.

This is the start of the CD release party tour in celebration of James’ new album Blues Been Good To Me on Catfood Records. Admission is $5.

Washington Blues Society – Seattle, WA

Washington Blues Society presents the 2017 Snohomish Blues Invasion! Since 2009 the Washington Blues Society has presented the Snohomish Blues Invasion; a one-day mini festival pub crawl event in historic downtown Snohomish. The event has become so popular among blues fan that the event was voted the “Best Non- Festival Event,” at the Best of the Blues awards in the spring of 2017.

The Blues Invasion returns to Snohomish Sunday November 19th 2- 10 PM. Over 25 acts will appear in venues on historic first street, including the newly remodeled Stewart’s tavern, the Piccadilly Circus Pub, along with two all ages venues, The Oxford and the First and Union Kitchen. The event also includes a silent auction of music memorabilia and a 50/50 raffle. $10 donation for a wristband to gain entry to all the venues.

Proceeds go to the IBC fund to send entrants to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis TN. The 2018 entrants representing Washington state are The CD Woodbury Trio and the Benton /Townsend duo.www.wablues.org.

The Illinois Central Blues Club – Springfield, IL

The Illinois Central Blues Club has announced the line-up of talent for Blue Monday live performances held every Monday night at The Alamo, 115 North Fifth, Springfield, IL from 8:00pm to midnight. Additional information on any performer listed below is available upon request.

Blue Monday Schedule: Oct 30 – Lionel Young.

For more information visit www.icbluesclub.org.

Friends of the Blues – Kankakee, IL

Nov 14 – Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat, Manteno Sportsmen’s Club. More Info at: http://www.facebook.com/friendsoftheblues.


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P.O. Box 721 Pekin, Illinois 61555 © 2017 Blues Blast Magazine (309) 267-4425

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